RSW VIDEO

Russ Gilkison, superintendent of the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail in Front Royal, stands inside one of the booths that offers video web visits for visitors to see jail inmates. The service was installed during COVID and visitors can now use the same technology from home without having to visit the jail.

FRONT ROYAL — As the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail is moving forward with some operational changes including the return of onsite visitation.

The onsite visitation room, which allows people to video conference with their inmates free of charge at certain times, reopened July 1. Guest do not have to provide proof that they’ve been vaccinated, but they must wear masks.

During the pandemic, after in-person visitation was shut down, an iWebVisit system was set up that allowed remote visitations for a small charge, RSW Superintendent Russell Gilkison said. For many visitors, remote visitations may still be preferred.

“Four dollars for 15 minutes sounds expensive, but a gallon of gas is three dollars,” Gilkison said, giving a reason that some may want to continue the video conferencing. “And just your time alone ... it’s really kind of a bargain.”

Capt. Mike Miller, who is involved with the jail’s operations, said remote visitations allow inmates to see the homes, gardens, pets and more of their friends and family. Other benefits he noted include that remote visits are allowed more frequently and they eliminate wait time for onsite machines.

Before remote visitation, visitors had to come to the jail to video conference with inmates.

“It’s definitely more meaningful to them now,” Miller said of the remote video visitation. “It just seems to make everyone happier.”

The remote video calls are recorded and monitored for inappropriate behavior such as “indecent exposure,” which Gilkison said some people do try to get away with. When that happens, he said inmates are warned their visitation privileges may be revoked if it happens again.

{span}The Pennsylvania-based{/span} iWebVisit company installed their system free of charge since they collect the fees for the service. The onsite video conferencing room could be repurposed if remote visitation continues to be preferred, Gilkison said.

Attorney-client contact

While remote video visitation may be beneficial to inmates and their loved ones, having it as the primary option for attorneys to contact clients wasn’t considered.

With the lobby reopening, the jail initially planned on July 1 to stop allowing attorneys to use the phone lines set up to limit in-person visits. The jail planned to have attorneys use the iWebVisit system moving forward.

But following a talk with Woodstock Attorney Charles Ramsey and Shenandoah County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Kevin Black, the jail extended the use of the phone line until a permanent solution is found. Ramsey said during a hearing in Shenandoah County Circuit Court last week that he was unable to speak with one of his clients before the hearing because of a complication from removing the call-in line he had.

Ramsey, who often works as a court appointed attorney, said he has a heavy caseload at Shenandoah County’s courthouse, which is about 30 miles away from the jail. It’s inconvenient not to be able to call clients when he has the time, Ramsey said.

Gilkison said that allowing attorneys to call in required giving inmates mobile phones. But that was sometimes difficult since there’s a limited number of phones and sometimes several attorneys are calling at once.

Now, a screen for inmates is available to see when visits may be scheduled and it will be up to the inmates to check it regularly, Gilkison said.

After speaking with Gilkison about the matter, Ramsey said he is “optimistic” that a solution can be found.

In-person vs. remote hearings

Video conferencing court hearings had been used in Virginia for years, but they were used more frequently during the pandemic.

With the reduction in COVID-19 cases, transporting defendants to court for in-person hearings may now be preferred, said Stephanie Burgin, Shenandoah County Circuit Court’s criminal clerk supervisor.

She said the relationship with RSW is good, which leads to few issues in scheduling the videoconference hearings. But complications can arise when coordinating hearings with out-of-area jails.

Instead of the video conferencing, Shenandoah County’s transport team can bring inmates to court, Burgin said. When it’s time for that inmate’s court appearance, they can be brought out from a holding area, and conversation about the proceedings can happen without much delay.

Ramsey noted that video conferences are convenient for simple matters such as continuance hearings while more formal hearings such as arraignments should be in-person. Regarding video conference versus in-person hearings, Gilkison said the jail will comply with whatever the court orders.

Contact Charles Paullin at cpaullin@nvdaily.com